A note on neologisms

Today, in a letter to John C. Wright, I fell into a digression on neologisms, and one of the possible reasons why some of them catch on and others fail. I thought it might be as well to repeat it here, and throw it open to my 3.6 Loyal Readers for discussion or demolition:

One wants names for things, not for un-things. One may need new words to express new facts, but a lie, to be effective, must be tricked out in language that the intended victim already understands.

If I discover a species of rabbit previously unknown to science, I may point at it and say, ‘That is a zeffle.’ I have done well: I have made a new name for a new thing. If anyone asks ‘What is a zeffle?’ I can appeal to the facts by showing them the animal. But if I point at a plain old-fashioned domestic rabbit, and say, ‘That is not a rabbit, but a smeerp,’ my words will not convince even the most gullible, because there is no fact to appeal to. They have no standard of ‘smeerp-hood’ in their minds, so the word does not communicate any ideas to them, not even false ones.

If I said, ‘That is not a rabbit, but a horse,’ I would at least communicate a meaning. If I were to say, ‘That is not a rabbit, but a hare,’ I would move into the realm of the plausible, where all lies must have their being if they are to prosper.

It is for this reason that the most skilful liars work not by inventing new words, but by distorting and perverting the meanings of old ones.

Comments

  1. It is for this reason that the most skilful liars work not by inventing new words, but by distorting and perverting the meanings of old ones.

    Not sure if it’s covered in what you mean, but there’s also the lie that is built out of known things– to continue your metaphor, you’re telling folks there’s a jackalope, or some other chimera, and its good fairy version of explaining something not in evidence by comparing it to known things.

  2. Stephen J. says:

    So the thesis is that to catch on, a neologism must fill a need for a word to cover a new, real and recognized thing? I suspect this is true, but I also think it is likely to be merely a necessary and not sufficient condition. Otherwise all the words in THE MEANING OF LIFF would have caught on a lot better than they did.

    (Although I am still a fan of the term damnaglaur: “A facial expression of which an actor must display his mastery before he may be permitted to play Macbeth.”)

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